communicating leadership language

Communicating The Universal Leadership Language

I spent 9 days in Cuba last month.

Many stories to tell.

Yes, I engaged in some of the expected activities. Strolled through Havana Vieja, retracing Ernest Hemingway’s steps. Listened to infectious live music every day. Indulged in a slew of sumptuous meals prepared in the home-grown paladares, beacons of a nascent Cuban entrepreneurialism.

But the unexpected stirred me most.

My friend Marge Schiller is a driving force in the world of Appreciative Inquiry, a strengths-based framework for charting better futures. One morning, Marge and I snuck away from our organized tour. We hopped into a taxi and headed to a women’s center in Miramar, the formerly grand mansion suburb of Havana where Marge was leading an Appreciative Inquiry workshop. The event had been arranged by Dr. Patricia Arenas Bautista, a thought leader in Cuba.

The unexpected stirred me most.

When the audience of about twenty professionals began to speak of the things they yearned for, these are the words I heard:

Authenticity. Transparency. Positivity. New Leadership Styles.

The same words we are likely to hear in a leadership conversation in the US, or for that matter, most any part of the world. This conversation called upon language that all of us, anywhere, use to define and quantify leadership. Authenticity. Transparency. Positivity. New Leadership Styles.

Beautiful words. And often reduced to instant clichés.

I wondered, of course – what do these words mean in a Cuban context? More importantly, what do these words mean when we all toss them about, as we do in our business lives, day in and day out?

Here’s where my leadership lessons kicked in.

1. Translate with Rigor

In Havana we had the gift of Wilfredo, the translator who converted English to Spanish and back. In our daily business lives, we do the translations in our head. We hear authenticity, and bingo, a slew of silent translations occur. One silent head at a time. And yet, we carry on as if we all had agreed on what authenticity is.

Authenticity. Transparency. Positivity. New Leadership Styles. Beautiful words. And often reduced to instant clichés.

Leadership lesson #1: Make the silent explicit. Invite folks to express their translations. That’s where leadership conversations begin.

2. Drill, baby, Drill

No, I am not referring to the Sarah Palin kind of drilling. Drilling occurs the moment we claim our personal translation of leadership lingo and venture beyond. Connect one translation to another. Compare and contrast. Delve into the nuanced implication of a word or phrase.

Make the silent explicit. Invite folks to express their translations. That’s where leadership conversations begin.

Leadership lesson #2: In the act of drilling down, we un-cliché leadership. That’s where leadership enlightenment begins.

3. Consider Context

When we speak of transparency, what do we want transparency to look like in our organization? Our department? Our 1-1 relationships with each other? As we connect concept with context, we begin to breathe life into well-worn leadership sound-bites. We anchor the abstract in everyday leadership reality.

Leadership lesson #3: By imposing context, we consider the everyday application of leadership ideals. That’s where leadership application begins.

4. Boldly Invoke Meaning

We have collectively translated. We have drilled down. Created context. Great. So why the heck does any of it matter? Great leaders know that all of us yearn for meaning. When our leadership language is carefully considered, the meaning we discover is earned. It resonates deeply. It sings in our souls.

Great leaders know that all of us yearn for meaning. When our leadership language is carefully considered, the meaning we discover is earned.

Leadership lesson #4: Great leaders are in the eye of the beholder (as Marge Schiller so beautiful shows in her book “[easyazon_link asin=”0971231206″ locale=”US” new_window=”default” nofollow=”default” tag=”achievstrate-20″ add_to_cart=”default” cloaking=”default” localization=”default” popups=”default”]Appreciative Leaders: In the Eye of the Beholder[/easyazon_link]”). The common thread is that they all invoke meaning for those they lead. They invoke meaning that resonates. That’s where leadership has the power to change the world.

None of my lessons are about Cuba. Cuba simply crystallized them for me.

I am always happy for the unexpected gift.


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Copyright: robodread / 123RF Stock Photo

Achim Nowak is the author of Infectious: How to Connect Deeply and Unleash the Energetic Leader Within (Allworth/2013) and Power Speaking. An international authority on leadership presence, Achim coaches entrepreneurs and Fortune 500 executives around the globe. He has been featured in Fast Company, Forbes, Entrepreneur, NPR, and on 60 Minutes. Achim is based in Miami.

  • Chris Willis

    Lately, I’ve become despondent over how far American culture has strayed from Appreciative Leadership or even valuing the most simple win/win, abundance mindset. Your post is a welcome reminder: repeated misuse of a phrase may render it cliche, but that does not diminish the value of its original intent. It’s our job as leaders to reframe and provide meaningful context for the current situation. And, speaking of context, if I am discouraged at how much cultural backsliding we have done here in the States, I can only begin to imagine how much more of an uphill battle emerging leaders face enabling change in a culture shaped by dictatorship, such as Cuba. Context, indeed, is everything.

  • Achim Nowak

    I heartily concur with your observations. The original intent of Appreciative Leadership is exquisite, as are many of the other “leadership shortcuts” we use when we discuss leadership. Because leadership is always both simple and complex, context-naming is such a marvelous way of keeping the conversation “real.”
    Warm greetings … Achim

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